- Associated Press - Thursday, November 20, 2014

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - A federal appeals board upheld the firing of the director of the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System for neglect of duty, including not taking action against an employee who investigators said drove a substance abuse patient to a crack house to get drugs.

The Department of Veterans Affairs terminated James Talton in late October. He was the first VA official fired under a law approved by Congress and the president this summer. The law expedites the dismissal process for VA senior executives in response to the agency’s staff falsifying patient scheduling data to cover up extremely long waits for appointments.

Talton appealed to the U.S. Merit Systems Protection Board, which in a 32-page decision, upheld his dismissal for also failing to provide appropriate information to his supervisor. The decision ends Talton’s 31 years of federal service in the Army and then at the VA.

VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson told the board that Talton’s “misconduct has contributed to the public’s lack of trust that the VA can fulfill its mission to care for veterans.”

U.S. Rep. Martha Roby of Montgomery, who has repeatedly called for leadership changes at the Central Alabama VA, said Thursday that instilling accountability requires more than just firing Talton.

“Responsibility for the misconduct, negligence and systemic fraud at the Central Alabama VA doesn’t rest with one person. I don’t expect the director to be the last one fired, nor should he be,” said the Republican and member of the House Armed Services Committee.

Talton, 53, represented himself in the appeal. He does not have a listed phone number and could not be reached for comment Thursday. But before taking the job in 2012, he was honored for his work as associate director of the Tuscaloosa VA hospital. He received the VA’s Secretary’s Award for his service following a deadly tornado that hit Tuscaloosa on April 27, 2011, and the Alabama Hospital Association gave him its 2012 Hospital Heroes Award.

But at the Central Alabama VA, there were problems cited.

Ex-employee Joe Kennedy was accused in March 2013 of borrowing $600 from a patient in the VA’s drug treatment program and then driving him to a house to smoke crack cocaine. The patient tested positive for drugs when he returned to the VA on his own.

The board’s report said investigators informed Talton of the facts, but he took no action until the Montgomery Advertiser wrote about Kennedy’s case in August. Talton’s supervisors saw the report and became aware of what happened for the first time.

The VA put Talton on paid administrative leave Aug. 21 and then began termination proceedings against Kennedy. He was removed Oct. 10 - 19 months after the initial complaint.

Talton was also cited for not taking action against another employee whole lied about why he wrecked a VA vehicle.

In a written appeal, Talton told the Merit Systems Protection Board that he was never informed of all the facts in the two cases and that he was hampered by staff shortage and leadership turnover.

But in a decision Wednesday, the board’s chief administrative judge, Thomas Lanphear, found that investigators made Talton aware of all the facts in the Kennedy case and kept checking back to see why not action was taken. He wrote that “it is difficult to conjure a situation more diametrically opposed to the VA’s mission of honoring and caring for our veterans.”

Cheri Cannon, former chief counsel to the chairman of the Merit Systems Protection Board, said she believes the law used to fire Talton is unconstitutional as it is written because it violates employees’ due process rights. Cannon, now in private practice in Washington, said Talton should have had an attorney raise legal issues during his appeal and that would have given him a better chance of challenging the law in federal court, if he decides to do that.

The Central Alabama VA operates major medical facilities in Montgomery and Tuskegee and clinics in Dothan, Fort Rucker and Monroeville, Alabama, and Columbus, Georgia, that serve about 42,000 veterans.

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